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James Bell

No son should predecease his parents. No boy should predecease his housemaster. It all feels out of kilter. But of course it happens. In my time as a housemaster, some 300 boys passed through my care and four have subsequently died. I do not know the statistical probabilities of such occurrences; all I know is that four is four too many. My only crumb of comfort at these sad occasions is that none of these tragedies occurred on my watch. All four died after they had left school. I cannot imagine the anguish and despair of a housemaster who has to cope with that calamity.

James Bell was an affable boy. Nobody had a bad word to say about him and he never had a bad word to say about anybody else. His genial personality, equable temperament and generous disposition enabled him, without the slightest effort, to gather round him a large and loyal coterie of friends. He was no great shakes academically and it was the devil of a job for me to motivate him to work a bit harder. After some tine of tearing my hair out at his laissez-faire attitude to his studies, his mates sidled up to me and said, “There’s no point, Sir. He won’t have to do a day’s work in his life. On his 18th birthday, he’s inheriting a fortune.” Well, that may have been so, but I felt the struggle worthwhile; inertia is never a good habit at any age. I have to say though that my efforts met with only moderate success.

The odd thing about James – and this was to his credit – was that he never threw his wallet around. True, he was generous to his friends, often lavishly so, but his largesse was born out of kindness, not swagger. As his mates had predicted, he settled down to no regular employment but indulged his enthusiasm for outdoor activities, latterly kite surfing – an extreme sport if ever there was one – at which he became very proficient. It was on one such ‘jump’ that he plunged headlong into the sea. Rescue from the water was swift and resuscitation immediately attempted but to no avail. At first, it was thought to be a dreadful accident but later medical analysis revealed that he had suffered a heart attack, which would explain his catastrophic loss of control.

At the best of times, I find crematoria depressing places, dark, dismal, dreary, – dare is say it, ‘soulless’ – with their ersatz décor and functional character. This one was quite different. For a start, it was packed to the gunwales (well, James was a round-the-world yachtsman) with young people, quite a few well-known to me and several wearing the old No. 7 house tie. Furthermore, the coffin was hung about – I hesitate to use the word ‘draped’ – with some cheap-looking PCV material, before it was gently pointed out to me that it was actually the sail from his kite. A nice touch. Far from gloomy, the room was flooded with natural light; the whole of one side of the building, set at an oblique angle from the mourners, was glass. It gave out onto a pleasing green space of grass and trees, the centre-piece being a large, and very busy, bird table. I watched as our avian friends darted hither and thither, replicating the sort of swooping and soaring flight of the kite surfer, whose memory we were observing. It was an altogether uplifting experience, not at all sombre or mournful, an impression fortified by the subsequent refreshments on the beach, close to his home, on a still, bright, January day on the South Coast.

At times like this, reflection is often the prevailing mood. There’s nothing like a funeral to prompt intimations of mortality. Life is a guttering candle that can be snuffed out in an instant. In every innings, there is always a ball that’s got your name on it. It could be this over but you hope you can survive a while longer, at least until tea. In cricketing terms, James did not even make it until lunch, which was doubly sad in view of his heroic appetite. “At least he died doing something he loved,” was a view expressed by many on that beach. But for all the platitudes, no matter how well meant, I got the sense that here was a relatively young man whose life had drifted, who seemed to lack purpose, ambition, objective, a raison d’etre for his existence. He had many friends but no partner. He had many nephews, nieces and godchildren but none of his own. Was there an emptiness at his core? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody really knew.

Afterwards, during the long drive home, you try to cheer yourself up by reminding yourself that you are still alive and he is not. Better not waste the time that is left then. A laudable sentiment but one that is soon forgotten as we resume our daily battle through life’s troubles and vicissitudes., “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, as Hamlet said. And what of James and his legacy? I think it was his grandmother – she had died not long before so her words were quoted – who said that he might not have passed many exams but he had graduated as a human being. Most of us, I’m sure, would gladly take that as our epitaph.

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